Traditionally, the United States has employed a plurality system of voting. Voters are asked to select only one candidate, and the person with the most votes wins even if they do not have majority support.
In elections with only two candidates, that works out fine. But critics say that the traditional system can do a poor job measuring voter support across a field of three or more candidates, potentially allowing a candidate who is unpopular with a broad majority of the electorate to win.
That’s why an alternative system, ranked-choice voting ― also known as an “instant-runoff” election ― is gaining support in states and jurisdictions around the country.
Next week, New York City’s Democratic primary will provide a high-profile example of ranked-choice voting in action: More than a dozen mayoral candidates will appear on the June 22 ballot, and voters will be able to rank them in order of preference. Since New York City leans so heavily Democratic, whoever emerges victorious in the primary is largely expected to win the general mayoral election in November.
Dozens of cities ― including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City ― have started to use ranked-choice voting, and certain states are turning to the new system, too. Maine uses ranked-choice for federal elections, and Alaska is set to start doing so in 2022.
Here’s what to know.
Criticisms Of The Status Quo
Regardless of whether you lean right or left, having more than two candidates in a race can split the vote in ways that leave voters feeling dissatisfied.
Two big examples are the presidential elections of 1992 and 2000. In each case, a third-party candidate emerged and arguably siphoned votes away from the candidates representing America’s two main political parties, largely seen as having the best shot at winning. If Americans had used ranked-choice voting in 2000, for example, people who liked Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would have been able to register their support for him while still having a say in whether they preferred Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore.
In a nutshell, ranked-choice allows voters to support outsider candidates who have a lesser chance at winning without “throwing away” or “wasting” their votes. You have backups.
There are other examples of the traditional system arguably failing to capture voter preference. As noted by Vox, Maine voters rallied around three candidates in the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race: The controversial Republican Paul LePage got 37.6% of the vote; an independent candidate got 35.9%; and a Democrat received 18.8% of the vote. LePage won, even though it is believed that more people who voted for the Democratic candidate would have preferred the independent over the far-right option.
The point of ranked-choice is to elect more representatives who have majority support. Research from Equal Citizens, a voting rights advocacy group, showed that 49 U.S. senators were elected with less than 50% support between 1992 and 2019 under traditional voting.
How Ranking Works
The system is supposed to be simple. It’s all in the name: Voters fill out their ballots with their top choice in first place, their second choice in second place, etc.
“Much more than any other election we have in America, you can vote honestly,” FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie told HuffPost.
In the New York City Democratic primary, voters get to rank five candidates. The system works slightly differently in other places; Maine, for example, allows voters to rank every candidate.
You can still vote for just one person if you want to, or only rank a few candidates. And of course, every voter still gets one vote ― nobody’s ballot is counted twice in a round.
Once the ballots are in, everybody’s first choice is tallied up. If one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, then the process is over, and that candidate wins.
But if no candidate has more than 50% of the vote, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and people who picked that person as their first choice will have their second choice counted instead. If there still isn’t a majority winner, the process repeats, with the last-place candidate eliminated and the votes for that candidate redistributed.
According to FairVote, a group that advocates for ranked-choice voting, there have been 236 ranked-choice elections in the U.S. with at least three candidates and a single winner. Of those, 46% were over after the first round ― like a traditional election. The remaining 128 races went through at least one instant runoff to arrive at a winner.
Although Massachusetts voters defeated a proposal to implement ranked-choice voting in their state last year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren posted a good explanation of how it works to YouTube.
Other Benefits Of Ranked-Choice Voting
When used in general elections, ranked-choice can boost prospects for third-party candidates operating outside the two-party establishment, and, its proponents argue, cut down on polarization. One study showed that a ranked-choice system can discourage negative campaigning.
Even when used within one party during its primaries, proponents say, the system gives a more honest picture of voter preference and gauges support for new ideas.
It can also give candidates from underrepresented demographics a better shot at winning. Data compiled by FairVote and RepresentWomen, another group that advocates for ranked-choice voting to be adopted, shows that the system often gives a boost to candidates of color and women candidates, promoting more diverse representation matching the makeup of the United States.
Strategizing With Ranked-Choice Ballots
One piece of (perhaps obvious) advice: If you hate a certain candidate, do not rank them. You also cannot harm the candidate you put in first place by ranking others.
Let’s look at the New York City Democratic primary. Voters are allowed to rank five candidates out of a pool of 13. Polls show a few of them consistently in the lead: NYPD veteran and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, progressive champion Maya Wiley, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
It’s possible that the race could come down to Yang or Adams, for example, and if you have not included either one in your ranking, you would therefore not get to express a preference between the two. So in a situation where there are a lot of candidates but just a few slots to fill, it might make sense to include one or more of the top-tier candidates that you think would be acceptable.
Richie outlined a long list of possible voter preferences and advice on how to fill out the rankings for the New York Democratic primary in a guest essay for The New York Times.
In 2018, two candidates for San Francisco mayor caused a kerfuffle when they were accused of trying to “game” the city’s ranked-choice voting system by encouraging voters to rank the two of them first and second (in whichever order they preferred). Mayoral ballots only had room to rank three candidates, so if voters followed the suggestion, they could have knocked a more moderate candidate out in a runoff round. It didn’t work. The candidate considered more moderate, London Breed, is now San Francisco mayor.
As the Times pointed out this week, a similarly complicated situation could arise in a ranked-choice election with three candidates wherein no one gets a majority and some people’s second-choice candidate gets eliminated in the first round, pushing those people’s hated candidate to victory (see “the Alaska dilemma”). In practice, Richie told HuffPost, this is very rare.
“In a sense, of all the electoral systems used in the United States, it’s the one where you can be the least strategic,” he said.
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